DeFlip Side #108: Cracking the Nutcracker


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side’s annual Christmas special. As in years past, this holiday outing will explore the bizarre origins of a beloved Christmas tradition. This time out I’m cracking the sugar-coated shell of The Nutcracker, exposing the weird, dark nuttiness within.

A seasonal staple of ballet companies the world over, The Nutcracker has become a Christmas ritual shared mainly between mothers and daughters. So being a grown man with no children put me at a distinct disadvantage, Nutcracker-wise. I knew almost nothing about it. It just conjured up vague images (probably gleaned from TV commercials) of a soldier, a little girl, a dancing bear and a giant rodent.

That last one always stuck with me. If giant vermin are on the scene, weird stuff is going down. It just has to be. So I tracked down the story on which the ballet is based, “Nutcracker and Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and sure enough it’s much more sinister than the family-friendly fare flitting across the stage.

Hoffmann was a master fantasist, writing in the 19th Century as part of the Romantic Movement, who championed the fairytale as a literary vehicle uniquely suited for teaching people to see the world from a new perspective. So he set out to reinvent the genre for modern readers, leading to his surreal 1814 novella The Golden Pot which has been cited as the pioneer work of European Magic Realism.

Hoffmann also dabbled in the subgenre of dark romanticism, helping lay the groundwork for much of the gothic fiction that followed and, by extension, our modern Horror genre. Think of him as a forerunner of Edgar Allan Poe and Steven King. Most notable is his 1815 novel The Devil’s Elixirs, the nightmarish tale of a fallen monk being pursued by an evil doppelganger who begins to question reality. It’s bizarre and disquieting and seemingly far a-field from the fairytale setting of “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” But they’re not really as different as you’d think.

Conflicting realities also lie at the heart of Hoffmann’s “Nutcracker” embodied in the fantastic experiences of young Marie Stahlbaum, the story’s main character. It all begins one Christmas Eve when Marie’s Godfather Drosselmeier arrives with an odd wooden doll that cracks nuts. Marie becomes so enamored of the Nutcracker that she stays up past bedtime to play with him just a little longer. Now this is where it gets weird.

Marie hears a strange whispering and rustling in the room and looks up at the clock to see a huge golden owl perched on top, chanting about the coming of the Mouse King. When she looks again, the owl has turned into Godfather Drosselmeier who keeps nattering about the Mouse King’s arrival. If that’s not creepy enough, soon the room is swarming with mice that back Marie up to the cabinet where Nutcracker and the rest of her dolls are stored. A whistle pierces the air and here’s where it gets good:

“Right at her feet, as if driven by subterranean force, the ground spurted out sand and lime and crumbling wall stones, and seven mouse heads with seven brightly sparkling crowns loomed high from the ground, hissing and whistling quite unbearably.”

Talk about startling imagery. Know where else seven-headed beasts pop their heads up a lot? The Book of Revelation. They run rampant in the thing. A seven-headed dragon eats babies fresh from the womb; a seven-headed sea serpent rises up to fight the saints; and the fabled Whore of Babylon makes her grand entrance riding the back of a seven-headed scarlet beast. Now the whole Whore of Babylon thing leads to a kind of disturbing parallel toward the end of the story, but more on that later.

So this seven-headed beast straight out of biblical doomsday claws its way up from the depths and advances on Marie. Enter Nutcracker, who marshals the dolls to war and commences battle—we’re talking Helm’s Deep-level mayhem here, only with sugar-pea cannons and mouse-turd bullets. But Nutcracker loses and Marie, injured and bleeding, passes out.

When she wakes up, discovering that she had cut herself on the broken glass of the cabinet, she insists that it was real. Drosselmeier feeds her delusional fire by telling her the origin story of the Mouse King—a convoluted affair involving bacon-theft and murdered mice and the vengeance of their mother Frau Mouserink, who gets stepped on and—in an agony of blood and broken bones—uses her dying breath to cast an evil spell on a young prince, turning him into Nutcracker. Apparently Frau Mouserink gave birth to the seven-headed monstrosity shortly after her other sons were killed and now he has it out for Nutcracker.

After hearing this story, Marie starts having nightly visitations by the Mouse King, who threatens to kill the battle-wounded Nutcracker unless Marie gives him sugar and sweets and other dolls to chew. Here’s a terrific passage for the kiddies:

“Oh how miserable Marie was the following night. Her arm was ice cold, she moved to and fro, her cheeks were raw and wretched, and a squealing and squeaking filled her ears. The repugnant Mouse King sat on her shoulder, and he driveled, bloodred, out of the seven gaping maws. And with munching and crunching teeth, he hissed into Marie’s ear, hissed with terror and horror.”

If that isn’t the stuff of nightmares, nothing is. That’s freaking terrifying when you stop to visualize it. How did we go from the horrors of a slavering, bloodthirsty hell-mouse to sugarplum fairies?

Well, there are actually two people to thank: Author Alexandre Dumas and Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Dumas—of The Three Musketeers fame—translated Hoffmann’s story into French, embellishing it and softening its more disturbing imagery. The story was further watered down and simplified when Tchaikovsky adapted it for ballet, getting rid of the Mouse King right after the initial battle, and focusing on the end of the story, where Nutcracker whisks Marie (for some reason named Clara in the ballet) to a fantasy land literally made of candy, to tromp through the Christmas Forest to the Marzipan Castle. Thus is a Christmas classic born. And if, like me, you’re ready to puke right about now, let’s get back to that whole Whore of Babylon thing.

At the end of Hoffmann’s original story when Marie gets to the castle and sees all the confectionary work Nutcracker’s princess sisters are engaged in, she wants to help. One of the princesses gives her a mortar and pestle and tells her to grind up some rock candy. The section ends with Marie pounding away contentedly on the mortar. Reality swims as she plies her pestle strokes and:

“Now Marie wanted to ascend, as if surging on billows, higher and higher, higher and higher, higher and higher.”

Am I the only one picking up a ton of phallic and orgasmic imagery? Maybe Hoffmann’s Romanticism was darker than we thought.

Be that as it may, his work influenced not only Horror writers, but Fantasy authors as well. From the timeless fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson to relatively modern children’s classics like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—all have echoes of “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” And wait until you hear how Nutcracker transports Marie to his candy kingdom:

“He took the lead, followed by Marie, until he stopped at the huge old wardrobe in the hallway …the doors of this closet, usually shut, were now wide open so that she clearly made out her father’s traveling fox fur… Nutcracker… climbed up… so that he could get hold of the enormous tassel, which… hung on the back of that fur. When Nutcracker pulled hard on the tassel, a very delicate cedar stairway quickly dropped through the fur sleeve. ‘Please go up, dearest demoiselle,’ cried Nutcracker. Marie did so… All at once, she found herself on a marvelously fragrant meadow from which a million sparks arose like blinking gems.”

Do you suppose those sparks came from a mysteriously incongruous lamppost? Perhaps nowhere does Hoffmann’s fairytale legacy live on more fully in modern Fantasy than in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. And with the success of the film adaptations, Hoffmann is more alive to today’s audiences than ever.

As for the Nutcracker ballet, I have even less interest in seeing it now, since it strips the story of its wonderfully disturbing gore and subtext. Without these headier elements, “Nutcracker and Mouse King” is a disjointed, saccharine mess—kind of like the entire yuletide season, when you come to think about it. No wonder it’s such a good fit…

Merry Christmas!